A number of high profile Asia-oriented titles have dominated this spring and summer’s publication cycles. Back in March, veteran writer Ruth Ozeki published her long-awaited next novel, A Tale for the Time Being. In contrast, Crazy Rich Asians, released in June, is Kevin Kwan’s debut. The two books are united, however, by the theme of commodities in modern Asian culture.
In A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki links two people on opposite sides of the Pacific through a journal made from the cover of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time encased in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. One is Nao-chan, a teenage Japanese girl living in Tokyo. The other is Ruth, a writer who has left Manhattan behind to rough it on the remote island of Desolation Sound.
Nao’s life is defined by the pluses and pitfalls of commodity culture. In her early childhood, her father is recruited to work for a tech company in Silicon Valley. Their monied existence in Sunnyville, however, comes crashing down around them when the dot-com bubble bursts and Nao’s father loses his job and his savings. Impoverished and mentally shaken, the family returns to Japan, where they rent a rundown apartment in a shady Tokyo neighborhood.
Awash in Japan, a place she barely remembers, Nao struggles with a language barrier that limits her social interactions and academic success. Bullied for her foreignness and her inability to afford the material trappings of societal distinction, Nao gradually becomes a commodity herself. Her only friend turns out to be a female pimp, who pays her to date and sleep with older men, while her schoolmates steal her underwear and sell it online in an act of extreme hazing.
When Nao and her family’s situation reaches penultimate disaster, however, a slight woman in plain, pajama-like robes arrives–Nao’s great-grandmother, a 104 year-old Buddhist nun. She takes Nao to her remote temple near Sendai for the summer. Here, Nao learns about Zen meditation, which she calls her “superpower,” as well as the trials in her family’s past.
Both Ruth the writer and Nao’s Buddhist great-grandmother serve as foils for the heroine Nao’s in-the-moment, commodity-driven existence. At the same time, it is by pulling away from the hustle and bustle of the city, gaining an broader perspective on life through the troubles of the past, and learning to meditate that Nao is able to start coming to terms with her trials. In this way, A Tale for the Time Being serves as a gentle rebuke for modern readers, highlighting how commodity cultures can negatively impact society.
Unlike with her highly political earlier novels, however, this theme does not consume the entire book. Rather, it plays second fiddle to Ozeki’s larger focus on the connectivity of people across time and space. Although they never meet, Nao becomes a force in Ruth’s life, a character in her story. And, she cannot help but be equally impactful with readers. Despite the heavier topics in A Tale for the Time Being, Nao’s journal conveys a forceful voice replete with a magnetic cheer that captures hearts and adds comic relief. A deep, thoughtful story that will challenge readers, A Tale for the Time Being is well-worth the ten years it took Ozeki to move from concept to published work.
Humor is certainly not missing from Kevin Kwan’s guided tour through the circles of Singapore’s multi-billionaires and millionaires, Crazy Rich Asians. Kwan offers readers a fictionalized glimpse into the lives of one of Singapore’s oldest and most affluent familial dynasties. When the heir apparent, Nicholas Young, returns from his life of comparative poverty as an academic in America with an ABC (American-Born Chinese) girlfriend in tow, all hell breaks lose in a ridiculous cross-cultural struggle of epic proportions.
With Austen-inspired narrative flare, Kwan pairs Nicholas Young with Rachel, a fellow academic whose kindhearted demeanor, humble origins, and natural beauty make her the perfect foil for Nick’s friends and family. While Rachel’s run-ins with Nick’s social circle, propelled by the wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo, drives the plot of Crazy Rich Asians, the book is also an Austen-esque, lightly satirical study of human interactions and the commodity culture of monied southeast Asians.
With its temperature-controlled closets complete with digital consoles that can store what outfits you’ve worn, private islands, ladies’ maids gifted in perpetuity by kings, designer diamonds and fashion confections, Crazy Rich Asians is a riotously fun look into the lives of the very rich, patterned after the author’s own family and upbringing. These lives, however, are often ruled by a spirit of one-up-manship, with family members’ struggles to outdo one another through their material possessions or even their understated fashion statements, creating rifts between them.
There is more to the story, however, than money slinging. Equally interesting is Kwan’s exploration of the cultural nuances of old wealth and new money, the differences between Hong Kong, Singaporean, and Shanghai natives, and how Chinese Americans fit into the picture. Nick and his immediate family and friends form a privileged microcosm of these societal differences that Kwan then explores through light, witty interactions and outrageous dialogues.
Crazy Rich Asians functions on many levels, and it is easy to miss the deeper, literary aspects of the book hidden beneath the bickering, the mud slinging, the sabotage, the brand names, and Kwan’s humorous voice. Like A Tale for the Time Being, at first glance, Crazy Rich Asians teeters dangerously close to appearing stereotypical. For both books, however, it is the well-developed characters and the artfully constructed worlds that transform stereotypes into unique, dimensional characters and vivid locals. Part satire, part celebration, Crazy Rich Asians appeals to both the more serious reader and those looking for a breezy Asian Cinderella story.
Both Crazy Rich Asians and A Tale for the Time Being offer interesting glimpses into unique and varied ways Asia has developed commodity-driven cultures and the fall-out associated with these lifestyles. And, perhaps, reading about these types of cultures in far-off places will make us think more critically about our own commodity culture in the USA.